Shakespeare's King Lear, when perceived in a modern context , can be interpreted as a family drama which is either an “exalted version of a domestic tragedy” as critic McFarland claims, or according to Scottish psychotherapist RD Laing a “reciprocal terrorism,” where family members offer each other mutual protection against each other's violence. Therefore in this play, I perceived Shakespeare's idea of tragedy through the concept of family relationships. Such bonds can be said to be a natural part of human life and the moral struggle of individuals is clear in King Lear as it leads to many characters' downfall.
The notion of a deteriorating family unit is apparent through the characterisation, and the parallelling stories of two families, evident in many scenes such as the “Love Trial Scene” in Act 1 scene 1 to the fabrication of the letter to deceive Gloucester in Act 1 scene 2, “The Storm Scene” in Act 3 to “The Blinding Scene” in Act 3 Scene 7 and “The Reunion of King Lear and Cordelia Act Scene” in Act 4 scene 6 and “The Heave Scene” where Poor Tom/Edgar guides his father in Act 4 scene 1. Shakespeare further uses language and dramatic techniques to highlight and question the dynamics of the family. This notion has been illuminated by the Richard Eyre's 1998 production of King Lear. Nevertheless my interpretation carries positive values which are reaffirmed at the end of the play. (family unit as perceived in Shakespeare's time)
King Lear is a play which mirrors an “archetypal dysfunctional family” and this is portrayed through the characterisation of both the ageing fathers Lear and Gloucester. Lear's role as a king and father is questioned throughout the play, made clear through his daughter's statement, “yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself” which is ironically true. This is highlighted through the imperative tone in Act 1 scene. Lear's regal dialogue contains many connotations alluding to his superiority, “give me” and “speak.” His power is further symbolised when he is studying a map, with the intention of dividing his empire between his daughters, and he measures their love for him through the properties he will present to them. This reveals indeed that Lear is abusing his power as both a king and father.
Due to Lear immense sense of pride, he is unable to be a morally upright father. This is amplified when he is able to accept and appreciate his daughters' words of flattery, evident in Gonerill's hyperbolic speech, “Dearer than eyesight ,space, and liberty” explaining why Lear is incapable of having true relationships with his daughters.
Indeed his daughters' flattering speeches reveal Lear's abusive nature as a father. This is made most obvious in Eyre's production, through the authorative nature of Lear's characterisation. Lear seemingly plays a sexual game with his daughters, exemplified when he is positioned rather close to Regan, and a follow shot of him enhances the innuendo present.
Lear is often too rash and emotionally driven resulting in bad decisions concerning relationships. This is illustrated using assonance when Shakespeare displays Lear's twisted interpretation of Cordelia's words, “I love your majesty According to my bond, no more nor less.” Lear's irrational anguish is portrayed through dialogue which interweaves dark imagery such as “The mysteries of Hectate and the night.”
In Eyre's production, Lear's anger foreshadows his mental torment, emphasised through the setting and his god like gestures, as he raises his arms to the sky.
The subplot of Gloucester and his sons also re-enforces the idea of human flaws, causing tension between people. I perceive Gloucester, like Lear, to be a thoughtless father. This is apparent in the introductory statements of the play. Gloucester's flippant tone visible in the double entendre “his mother fair, there was good sport at his making” suggests that he treats his relationships like games and this is undermining the natural order of society.
Similarly, parallels can be drawn between the deceitful children of both parents. Edmond however is far worse in character compared to Regan and Cordelia, as he deliberately plans and manipulates his father as a result of his materialistic dynamics (this quote doesn't relate to what you're saying) “Thou, Nature, art my goddess.” However when the audience is introduced to the notion of sibling rivalry, Shakespeare questions the justice in society as he structures Edmond's soliloquy from questioning “ Why `bastard'? Wherefore `base'?” to explaining “Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land”. Thus I understood Edmond's need for power as more justifiable than in Lear's case, since the Jacobean audience rejected the idea of the illegitimate child.
Edmond's motivation is re-iterated in Eyre's production, emphasised by the background voice of Edmund as the camera zooms into Gloucester's face. The issue of honesty in families is highlighted when Gloucester asks for the letter Edmond is reading, and Edmond responds “Nothing, my lord,” the repetition of the word “nothing” throughout the subplot highlighting his deceitfulness. Cordelia's meaning of the word “nothing” contrasts to Edmund's definition, as it actually reflects her love for her father.
The consequences of lies in relationships is illustrated as Gloucester reacts without irrational thought to the letter “ Abhorred villain, unnatural ,detested , brutish villain”. The ploce utilised is highly ironic as Edmund is in fact the villain. This idea is re-iterated in the Eyre production when there is a close-up shot of Gloucester's' unbelieving face, followed by a close-up shot of Edmund's face which gradually wears a evil smile. He sees the natural order as being disturbed “ yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects” and worries about the world “in countries ; discord ; in palaces……bond cracked `twixt son and father.”
Thus Edmond's jealousy at being the illegitimate child can be paralleled to the anger felt by Regan and Gonerill, who have been unfavoured by Lear “loved her (Cordelia) most.”
In King Lear's case this is shown through the emotional dialogue between father and child. Lear appears agonised , having suffered a lot “thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears Do scald like molten lead.” This imagery of the wheel of fortune suggests that there will be hope in the future as the wheel is at the bottom and it will rise again. King Lear finally recognises himself for who he truly is, highlighted through the first person narration “I am old and foolish.” This is reinforced through
Cordelia's response “And so I am: I am,” the repetition revealing this true father and daughter relationship.
Eyre's production also highlights the same idea through Lear's costuming, the juxtaposition when he appears white which is contrasted to black suggesting his purity. The closer proximity of father and daughter as he states “ Pray you now, forget And forgive. I am old and foolish” shows the love and harmony that should be present.
A similar idea is portrayed through Gloucester and Edgar. Unlike Lear, however, Gloucester's child Edgar is always there to support him physically. Ironically, Gloucester fails to recognise this and yet realises that he has made a bad choice in believing Edmund “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes”. The motif of eyes is used to demonstrate that what the eyes sees may at times be an illusion as it is Edgar, his true son who persists to love Gloucester, showing the inevitability of family relationship. This is amplified in Eyre's production, through the use of a long shot of poor Tom, as he guides Gloucester through the foggy landscape. The landscape is symbolic for barriers and the close-up shot of again Gloucester's and Edgar `s hands signifies the true relationship. A role reversal is evident as Edgar becomes the caring father, echoing a positive voice in Gloucester's head, “What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure Their going hence even as their coming hither” following Gloucester's negative speech with reference to chaos “As flies to wanton boys are we to th'gods; They kill us for their sport.” Edgar restores the natural order of society, thus families “ Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
King Lear continues to be appreciated as a result of its textual integrity, and its exploration of universal issues reflective of the human condition. Shakespeare effectively reveals to his audience through the use of dramatic techniques and a structure of a tragedy, issues such as family relationships, sex equality and power with dynamic characterisation, as representative of his context. This is evident in contemporary productions such as Peter Brook's 1971 production, Richard Eyre's 1997 production and the criticism from critics T.McFarland and Kathleen McLuskie. While Eyre, McFarland and McLuskie draw upon the familial and feminist readings, Brook's version draws upon nihilism. (149)
Shakespeare's King Lear was written in the 1600s, a period in which Queen Elizabeth ruled and society was governed by a feudal system. It consisted of the vassal who fought for his lord in return receiving protection for his people, land tenure and the lord paying respect to the King as a result of his status granted. Thus the system produced a rigid hierarchal society where people believed in the divine right of Kings and the chain of being. The great chain of being encompassed a hierarchy in which God and the King were at the top, followed by the church, princes, nobles, common man, and then plants and animals. Despite being a time of transition with expanding travelling, new ideas and movement from the medieval way of thinking, many things unexplained were explained by references to the supernatural.
Shakespeare's tragedy, King Lear contains a parallel subplot, focusing on two families and their respective relationships between father and children. Such a structure is used by Shakespeare to emphasise the universal nature of family relationships, something today's society can also relate with. Thus he captures the attention of the Jacobean audience as the family units constructed in Shakespeare's play are a subversion of the usual family structure present in the sixteenth century.
Richard Eyre's production approaches the play with different values, reflecting his 1990s background. Eyre reveals issues concerning gender equality while also focusing on the dysfunctional aspects of family relationships. Lear's actions clearly show that he is abusive as both a king and father, thus wreaking havoc in his relationships. A long shot of the royal family unable to assemble at the table until commanded by Lear, foregrounds the present and future distancing of relationships between all members of the family. In the contemporary society we live in, many families are experiencing this distancing between family members as a result of an increasingly stressful lifestyle, an issue I have seen dominate in many households. Lear's troubled relationship with his family is personified when he attempts to do business with his daughters on the family table, a symbol of his inability to differentiate between his family and working matters. Eyre clearly shows this as he portrays an incest father who treats his relationships like games, exhibited through cut shots and over the shoulder shots of Lear as he hugs Regan.
Eyre's interpretation of Shakespeare's play displays that women in the sixteenth century were indeed inferior to their male counterparts. This is made evident through the diluted grey costuming of Lear's daughters contrasted against the strong black costuming of men. Such an idea is further amplified when the men stand and the daughters kneel on the floor as the king assembles at the table. Lear is portrayed by Eyre as having a vast amount of power over his daughters, an idea which is certainly not as strong in Eyre's more modern background. Eyre further objectifies the daughters, highlighting the degradation of women when the camera constantly follows Lear but only captures the bodies of the daughters. However in the later part of the play, it is evident that the daughters transform into figures even more powerful than Lear. The black and red costuming of Regan and Gonerill respectively signifies that the stereotypical position of the daughter and father has reversed. This representation of their characters is a clear reflection of Eyre's context, as the Feminist Movement of the 1970s empowered women, the after effects of this clear in the 1990s as women enjoy equal rights as men in most fields. However, Eyre remains true to Shakespeare's original work, revealing Lear's inability to accept this reversal in power through a metaphor, “a disease that's in my flesh.”
However Brook's 1971 version takes a different perspective, reflecting upon the post World War 2 and Cold War. Brook's production focuses on the emptiness of human life through creating a production that is morally neutral. In the first scene, a panning shot over a frozen scene of working class people and silence establishes the stark emptiness of human life. This silence is re-iterated through the repetition of “nothing” as Cordelia refuses to comply with Lear's flattery. The clarity of the close-up shot of the back of Cordelia's head illustrates the inability of Lear's daughter to go on living a life desired by her father. In the 1970s, social norms were being broken, as religion, the notion of the nuclear family and the trust placed in one's government was deteriorating. This notion of dystopia is illustrated in the storm scene when Lear releases his anger over his daughter's mistreatment of him. The storm symbolically illustrates the nightmarish capacity of human cruelty. The rain and steam filled setting establishes the fear, confusion and bleakness of Lear's mental statement while the blurry focus distorts his figure. Brook clearly shows a dysfunctional man who has no hope in life and is on the verge of madness, an emotion felt by most during the Cold War as a nuclear war was feared.
Brook's interpretation of Gloucester's blinding displays a sense of hopelessness felt in the world. The black screen further highlights this, foregrounding Gloucester's scream for help as Cornwall plucks his eyes out. Further, Brook's long shot of a post holocaust desolate landscape as Gloucester blindly walks into the world with no healing hand is very representative of Brook's war time background. Gloucester is characterised as a nihilistic figure by Brook. Gloucester's despairing viewpoint that humans are of no great significance is demonstrated, “ As flies to wanton boys are we to th'gods; They kill us for their sport,” the simile revealing that in the greater scheme of life, humans are unimportant to the Gods. At the end of the play it is evident that there is no hope as a close-up shot of Lear states “ She's dead as earth,” a metaphor mirrored by the dry landscape which Lear foregrounds .This representation of Shakespeare's characters is a clear reflection of Brook's context, as the 1970s was rife with many uncertainties.
Shakespeare's King Lear mirrors an “archetypal dysfunctional family” and this is portrayed through the characterisation of both the ageing fathers Lear and Gloucester. Lear's role as a king and father is questioned throughout the play, made clear through his daughter's statement, “yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself” which is ironically true. This is highlighted through the imperative tone in Act 1 scene. Lear's regal dialogue contains many connotations alluding to his superiority, “give me” and “speak.” Due to Lear's immense sense of pride, he is unable to be a morally upright father and this is shown as he is able to accept and appreciate his daughters' words of flattery, evident in Gonerill's hyperbolic speech, “Dearer than eyesight ,space, and liberty” however is incapable of accepting Cordelia's words “Obey you, love you, and most honor you”, instead acts irrationally through dialogue with reference to dark imagery such as “The mysteries of Hectate and the night.” This explains both why Lear is incapable of having true relationships with his daughters and why there is chaos in the family. Like critics such Scottish psychotherapist RD Laing once claimed this is a “reciprocal terrorism,” where family members offer each other mutual protection against each other's violence. To enhance this familial idea Shakespeare parallels this with the subplot of Gloucester and his sons. Like Lear, Gloucester is a thoughtless father falling to his sons cunning plans “Abhorred villain, unnatural ,detested , brutish villain”. The ploce utilised is highly ironic as Edmond is in fact the villain. Similarly, parallels can be drawn between the deceitful children of both parents. Edmond however is far worse in character compared to Regan and Cordelia, as he deliberately plans and manipulates his father as a result of his materialistic dynamics (this quote doesn't relate to what you're saying) “Thou, Nature, art my goddess.” However when the audience is introduced to the notion of sibling rivalry, Shakespeare questions the justice in society as he structures Edmond's soliloquy from questioning “ Why `bastard'? Wherefore `base'?” to explaining “Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land”. Thus I understood Edmond's need for power as more justifiable than in Lear's case, since the Jacobean audience rejected the idea of the illegitimate child.
King Lear on the other hand as a feminist play. Shakespeare clearly shows this through the absence of the mother in both families and in the opening scene of the play. Gloucester's flippant tone for example visible in the double entendre “his mother fair, there was good sport at his making” suggests that he treats his women like a sexual object thus undermining the natural order of society. His son Edmond also carries this trait “Which one of them shall I take? Both? one? or neither?” the elusive use of questioning shows that he is still confident even with dealing with women “ Neither can be enjoyed if both remain alive”.
However it is Gonerill and Regan who voice this marginalisation of women in society. Both Gonerill and Regan use language that which women were accustomed to. This is shown through the Gonerill's speech replete of hyperbole “ I love you more than word can wield the matter , dearer than eyesight, space , and liberty”
As the play progresses Regan voices the need for gender equality as she responds to Lear's statement “I gave you all”, with “And in good time you gave it”. There is a parallel drawn between the use of word “gave”. While Lear uses it emotionally and in a materialistic nature, Regan uses it arrogant manner , not only referring to materialistic things but power. This shows that Regan is trying to upturn the patriarchal view of society. Lear's patriarchal atiitude is reinforced when Shakespeare uses alliteration “ let not women's weapons , water drops, stain my man's cheeks” to highlight his hatred towards Regan and Gonerill. Calling them even “unnatural hags” -suggesting that they are not in proper role of a woman. He also sees women's lust as the centre and source of corruption. Through the language of masculinity “ To't, luxury, pell-mell, for I lack soldiers.” to describing women as creatures of “riotous appetite” he is an abusive patriarch.